In previous years at Edinburgh International the animation programmes have often slipped me by, yet when you really put things in perspective, animation remains an incredibly important visual art that not only compliments cinema but literally constructs it. With 2014 marking the centenary year of legendary UK born animator Norman Mclaren with a series of EIFF retrospectives, it was also a platform for the 25th recipient of the Norman Mclaren award for ‘Best British Animation – the oldest established award of its kind.
Since the 1990s Britain’s animators have competed for this prestigious prize – a comprehensive list and links to previous award winners films can be found here: http://www.skwigly.co.uk/25-years-mclaren-award-2009-2014/) – and while animation is something that is difficult to deconstruct if you are not an artist, the mix of styles and approaches to storytelling through image and sound was an incredible experience.
While determining the winner of the award by house audience vote may have played into an existing bias towards certain styles of animation– confirmed by this years quirky stop motion My Stuffed Granny -it’s a privilege to see such collective talent on offer, from established big budget productions to promising students getting their dissertation films into the EIFF programme. While it is difficult to review a programme so varied in length, complexity and form, here is a quick run –through of some of the stand – out films of the programme.
The first set of screenings were headed off by the charming My Stuffed Granny (Effie Pappa), a tale of a family plagued by poverty and living primarily on the pension money of the family geriatric. While Granny is killed while literally putting her finger in the cookie jar, a little girls ingenuity leads to made – up corpses, pension swindles and a conclusion that takes a fantastical leap into the macabre. As the 2014 Mclaren Award winner determined by audience vote, it’s hard to deny the appeal of the beautiful stop- motion animation, black comedy and wonderful voice acting, with the film also re-enforcing Pappa’s skill in creating a modern day fairy-tale from the contemporary reality of financial crises.
Other animations from the first programme included humorous shorts, from Two Films About Loneliness (Christopher Eales, Will Bishop – Stephens) self – reverentially deconstructing the way we perceive ourselves on the internet, a visual satire on ‘shit nights out’ Wallflowers (Bjorn-Erick Aschim) and creative conceptual humour in Domestic Applicances (Lewis Bolton). We also had forays in to cute TV friendly animation with Avocado Bear (Thomas Fraser) and a re – mastered 1954 polish animation called Penismouse (Myszochujek), a psychedelic descent into themes of power and control through stick-men with swinging appendages.
However finishing the first Mclaren programme were three incredible standout animations, (with slightly longer run – times) demonstrating ingenuity in concept, form and execution. The first was Monkey Love Experiments (Ainslie Henderson, Will Anderson), an animation set in a historical period where psychological experiments into the nature of attraction in monkeys coincided with primates being sent into space. Shot in black and white, with a mixture of live action and stop – motion and a haunting score, the film won ‘The Award For Outstanding Individual Contribution To Short Film’ which is not surprising given the animators were co – creators of previous BAFTA winner The Making Of Longbird. As a film that combines dark subject matter of animal experimentation both in psychology and space travel fields, with a quirky poignant approach to the idiosyncratic nature of love, Monkey Love Experiments is a deeply moving piece and well deserved award winner.
The second was Port Nasty (Rob Zywietz) a film about a boy growing up in a whaling community and his mythological rite of passage at this edge of the world, where death waits behind every sheet of ice and snowy precipice. Coloured solely in black, white and blue in a more traditional hand drawn style, the animation transports you into this vivid nightmarish world through snapshots of watery abysses, small town taverns and the terrifying isolation of the tundra. With a narrative arc that also explores the morality of murder in a community sustained by such an act, Rob Zywietz film was a beautiful, nautical odyssey into the dark heart of a fishing community.
The final animation of the first wave of Mclaren shorts was a film that slipped into Pixar territory, especially in the way it combined slapstick with a quirky love story. Rendered in a clay–mation style Mr Plastimime (Daniel Greaves) chronicles the endeavours of a mime who time has left behind, with no-one really buying into the mime game anymore. Conveniently his one sole admirer is his female neighbour and as her life is thrown into peril, his skilful expertise in miming is cleverly placed into a real scenario. With echoes of Pixar’s Paperman short, the film is sustained by a strong orchestral score which at one point during a dance scene willingly morphs the boundaries of stop motion with impressive montages vividly wheeling through different animation styles. As an example of beautiful, emotive storytelling with strong visual humour, Mr Plastimime was relief from the some of the more thematic horrors of the programme.
The second programme of Mclaren award animations were bound by a cohesive theme ‘identity, memory and remembrance’ and apart from a few wildcards, there were some generally touching and heart-breaking animations within the fray.
Through The Hawthorn (Gemma Burditt, Pia Borg, Anna Benner) showcased an interesting relationship between style and subject, with the three directors each animating three characters involved in a counselling session between a psychiatrist, schizophrenic patient and his mother. Using a mixture of de – familiarising techniques – including visualising the fragmented psychological atmosphere and perspectives of the characters – was a strong creative decision for the story, boldly realised through chaotic transitions and grounded voice acting. Other shorter animations of the programme included a vivid painterly animation Spectators (Ross Hogg) focusing upon the behaviour of people at football stadiums, mental animation Fruit Fruit (Peter Millard) applying jazz aesthetics to anthropomorphic fruit and Forgot (Stephen Mcnally) a film re-exploring memory through gaussian blur of past events, in an sensory visual overload.
As film as hilarious as it was ambitious, 365 (The Brothers McLeod) used the concept of a ‘365 days in a year’ to create a collection of 1 second animations that span across the seasons in a bizarre collection of sketches. As a quite intense viewing experience, the animations either gain their humour from their sheer randomness, or through their ability to play with comic dilemmas of resolving a sketch in less than a second. While the film does become laborious at some points and repeated themes develop (screaming hipbones), it’s impressive to think of the conceptual work that would have gone into such a project. Helped by the fact the animation resembles an Adventuretime aesthetic, the film was the undisputed bizarre high – point of the programme.
Several films also explored war –time Britain, from Sea Front (Claire Lamond) using archival letters and puppet animation to explore the plight of soldiers fighting in World War 1, to Nest of Stone (Kim Noce) – a video essay on remembrance and memory, drawing its philosophical inspiration from the setting of graveyards. However my favourite from this strand was Make and Mend Do (Bexie Bush) a heart-breaking, life sized animation exploring relationships during wartime through the unscripted voice of loveable old lady Lyn Schofield of Southport Merseyside. What is beautiful about the approach is how the spirited, charismatic voiceover of Lyn, animates her possessions in her empty room – with memory magically reviving dusty objects, exorcising memory, and drawing myriad emotions from the relics of our past. As part documentary, animation and ‘magic’, Mend and Make Do is a testament to the power of animation in artistically enhancing storytelling and was a film that I’m sure dispersed an equal share of laughter and tears among the audience.
The last two animations that really stood out for me tackled the toasty subjects of ‘death’ and memory, sometimes simultaneously. The Bigger Picture (Daisy Jacobs) explored the darkly comic tale of two brothers caring for an ageing parent, with a distinctive style that bagged it the ‘Creative Innovation Award In a Short Film’. Exploring carer – parent relationships with a wit and realism rarely even explored in live – action films, the films tangles with mortality, responsibility and guilt are extremely powerful – complimented by an experimental and highly unpredictable style.
Saving the best till last, lavish production Lost Property (Asa Lucander) was an expansive fantasy animation with a reality tinged twist, following a women repeatedly visiting the lost property office with several items, with the stores elderly gent taking the women on a tour of his stockpiles. Yet what begins initially as a comic sketch slowly develops into a conclusion exploring memory and love in a twist that reveals subject matter that is undeniably heart-breaking. (Spoiler Alert) While exploring dementia is something that many feature films have used to pull a swift emotional gut punch when you least expect it, Lost Property does it in an empathetic way and achieves in 6 minutes what many feature films on the same subject have failed to do for years.
The Mclaren Award programmes were an absolutely sublime experience and while viewers exposure to animation is normally through the internet or Television these days, seeing these artistic films in a cinematic setting was one of the best experiences of Edinburgh International this year and a thrilling entry point into the creative diversity of British animation.